October 22, 2019

What These Jewish Literary Truths We Hold Mean

Photo courtesy of Yad Sarah

“I was a boy who told lies. This came from reading.”

So opens one of Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel’s most memorable stories, “In the Basement,” about a young boy who invents outlandish tales about his family in order to impress Borgman, an affluent, intellectually gifted peer. The relationship between truth and storytelling is one of the central issues of this coming-of-age story. None of what Babel’s narrator tells Borgman about his own family and background existed. What did exist, however, “was far more extraordinary than anything I had invented, but at the age of twelve I had no idea how to grapple with the truth of my world.”

Writers and literature professors like me love “In the Basement” because, in addition to being stunningly written, it shows how the art of lying — in other words, fiction — can serve to uncover deep human truths. Babel, who fell victim to Stalin’s Great Purge and for decades was “erased” from Soviet memory, produced fiction that is taut, complex and ambiguous, yielding rich meanings and interpretations that grow and develop over time with different readers. The idea that stories convey complex truths and give rise to multiple interpretations is central to my understanding not just of great literature but also of Jewish tradition.

These days, however, wherever I go, whatever I read and write, I am constantly thinking about truth, but not in my usual way. I am having trouble of late reading the line, “I was a boy who told lies. This came from reading,” with the same delight and abandon. During my recent Jewish literary tour of Ukraine, including a visit to Babel’s childhood Odessa neighborhood of Moldavanka, where many of his stories were set, I saw that today Babel has been rehabilitated and is acknowledged by a sidewalk star. Yet I struggled over the fact that Bogdan Khmelnytzky, the Cossack leader who presided over the massacre of thousands of Jews in 1648, is lauded as a national hero and features prominently on the 5 hryvnia bill. The same man who is viewed by Jews as a villain is held up by Ukrainians as a nationalist hero! Can truth really be so utterly subjective and contingent?

The world of Torah may allow for varying opinions, but a ruling must be made.

Back at home, I’ve been struggling to reconcile my liberal convictions about the malleability of textual meaning and truth with my outrage at the daily assault on truth being conducted by our president and by others who have forsaken the idea of dispassionate reporting in favor of partisan propaganda and ad hominem attack. When honest reporting and fair criticism are continually dismissed as “fake news”; when the president’s lawyer goes on a national news show and insists that “truth isn’t truth”; when day after day, partisan hacks turn the idea of subjectivity in interpretation into cynical spin, I find myself yearning and reaching for greater clarity and less ambiguity about the idea of truth.

Jewish tradition has something to say about this. The world of Torah may allow for varying opinions, but a ruling must be made. So, while the Talmud tractate Eruvin tells us of the teachings of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel that “Eilu ve’eilu divrei Elohim hayim” — both of these are the living words of God, in the end, the law follows Beit Hillel. According to the Talmud, the law favored Beit Hillel because of their fundamental decency and deference: “They were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakhah (Jewish law) they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.” The Talmud affirms the concept of respectful debate in matters of opinion. Really and truly, though, there is no such thing as “alternative facts.”

It is with this in mind and with a deep desire to show the wisdom that Jewish tradition and practice can offer us in these troubled times that Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion invites the larger community to identify and claim some unimpeachable, core values and truths with the leading thinkers, teachers and writers of our day. Symposium 2, “These Truths We Hold: Judaism in an Age of Truthiness,” will take place on Nov. 11-12 at Steven Wise Temple. Leading experts, including Marc Brettler, Chris Hayes, Michael Fishbane, Dahlia Lithwick and David Makovsky —to name just a few — will look at truth and pluralism from various Jewish textual and disciplinary perspectives — biblical, rabbinic, liturgical, journalistic, scientific and artistic.

As Babel’s child narrator reflects, lies can indeed result from reading. Deep, thoughtful reading and teaching from some of the world’s leading Jewish scholars, however, ought to lead us in the direction of deeper understanding. This is one truth that we fervently hold and strive to uphold.

Wendy Zierler is Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.